XFiles: What Biblical inerrancy really means

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)

Geisler and Turek continue their attempts to prove that it takes more faith to be an atheist, and this week their argument centers on the claim that the Bible is without error. We know this because the Bible says that Jesus says that the Bible is without error. Wellll, that is, he doesn’t come right out and actually say it. It’s more like he sorta implies it.

When the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with a question, Jesus said to them, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). The implication, of course, is that the Scriptures are inerrant. It wouldn’t make any sense for Jesus to say, “You are in error because you don’t know the Scriptures, which also err!”

That pretty much wraps up their argument for Biblical inerrancy, at least as far as this book is concerned. But since they raise the topic, let’s think about it a bit more.

I have a bad habit of looking up Bible references, especially when they’re just tossed in as an offhand debate-ender like this. So let’s take a quick look at Matthew 22 and get the whole story.

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

The first thing worth noticing about this passage is that, as Geisler and Turek point out, Jesus tells the Sadducees that they are wrong because they do not know the Scriptures (or the power of God). That’s interesting right there, considering that he’s talking to priests. But what’s even more interesting is that he then proceeds to “correct” them by declaring that “at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”—which is not written anywhere in the Old Testament Scriptures!

Neat, isn’t it? He accuses them of having missed an important point in the Scriptures, and then teaches something you wouldn’t find even if you read every verse. The net effect is that the “astonished” crowds immediately assume that what Jesus said was part of Scripture somewhere. Jesus has just taken advantage of their ignorance and illiteracy to deceive them regarding what the Old Testament actually taught, and he did it to elevate his own perceived authority above that of the established Bible scholars of his day. He never told his disciples, “Go thou and do likewise,” but it’s a fairly common practice in Christian theology. If someone raises a point that contradicts your dogmas, just make something up and present it as though it had been in the Bible all along.

But it gets even more interesting. Having scored his “point” against the Sadducees, he tries to make it a shut-out by turning the tables on them. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees accepted only the first five books (aka “The Law”) as canonical Scriptures. Jesus, however, is determined to beat them at their own game by proving the Pharisaic doctrine of resurrection out of their own Mosaic Pentateuch.

The trouble is, the Pentateuch does not teach Pharisaism (which, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, was basically a pagan idea that the Farsi/Pharisee Jews brought back with them from Persia/Farsia). Jesus, allegedly a prophet, allegedly God Incarnate, draws on his allegedly first-hand knowledge of the Law to try and find some passage which justifies belief in a future resurrection of the dead. And the best he can come up with is the verse in Exodus where God tells Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Once again, Jesus is appealing to the idea that the Sadducees do not know their own Scriptures, and once again he does so by appealing to ideas that are not written in the text. There’s nothing in the passage he quotes that says anything about death or resurrection or the future. There’s nothing in the verse that requires Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be alive in order for God to be their God. God can be Lord of the Sabbath even when it’s not the sabbath, He can be God of Creation even though Creation already happened, He can be the God of the Exodus even after the Exodus is ancient history. Jesus’ argument is simply not well-founded, even taking the Bible at face value.

But then Jesus ups the ante by plunging ahead with the idea that God is not the God of the dead. This idea is not only unscriptural (relative to the Old Testament anyway), it’s counter-productive. Why would God raise the dead if they’re no longer His once they die? And if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead, as Jesus argues, then what does that prove about resurrection? You can’t be raised from the dead if you’re not dead, so even if God were saying that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead, that proves nothing about some future resurrection of those who are dead. Jesus is utterly blowing away his own argument!

If you think about it, Jesus’ teaching about God not being the God of the dead is a doctrine that is grossly unchristian, and tantamount to an explicit denial of all the eternal blessings that the Gospel promises to believers. Oh, sure, God will raise His own and give them eternal bliss in His Heavenly Kingdom, but read the fine print: if you’ve died, you’re not “His own” any more, and therefore you’re not covered by the promise of resurrection. Gotcha! Hahahaha!

But wait. Matthew’s account is written in the context of a particular time and a particular culture. It’s entirely possible, and consistent with the Scriptural and historical record, for the Sadducees to have been henotheists: people who believe that many gods exist, but who worship and serve only one of them. In that context, it’s entirely possible that the Sadducees believed that Yahweh was the god of Israel, but someone else was the god of the dead. Thus, the real gist of Jesus’ argument would be that the Sadducees had a problem because they couldn’t explain how God could still be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after they were dead. That might be what was really happening here, but we can’t know for sure, even if we assume the Gospel is inerrant.

In other words, even when we do read an “inerrant” document, we can’t be sure we’re developing an inerrant understanding of what it wants to say. We can think up a plausible sounding interpretation for some of the more difficult passages (but even then, Jesus’ argument still fails, because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob do not need to belong to God today in order for God to call Himself their God, just like Jesus does not need to be physically suffering on a cross right now today in order for Christians to call him their crucified Savior).

But this brings us to the real point I want to make about inerrancy, and that is that it is essentially meaningless. Oh, sure, it’s supposed to impress people, and to prove that they can’t contradict you (because you’re quoting from “inerrant” Scripture). But it’s a worthless endorsement, because the act of quoting and applying the Scripture is not necessarily inerrant. Even if we assume that the Bible contains no errors (despite ample documentation elsewhere), there’s no certainty that the person quoting the Bible is actually understanding and applying it correctly.

We see this very clearly in the Gospel passage that Geisler and Turek refer to. Jesus himself, implicitly appealing to Biblical inerrancy, uses it to bolster the perceived authority of opinions that are not in the Scriptures he’s appealing to. And what’s more, he’s appealing to the Scriptures to refute the teachers of the Law, whose professional study of the Scriptures has somehow failed to impart this magical inerrancy to their own religious beliefs. Biblical inerrancy is a purely theoretical concept with no practical consequences, because it does not infallibly transfer itself to those who read the allegedly infallible documents. Jesus himself pointed out this failure by denying that the teachers of the Law really knew the Scriptures.

In fact, any document can be declared “infallible” with the same practical implications as the Bible’s alleged infallibility has. Entire books have been written attempting to explain (i.e. rationalize away) the errors that have been discovered in Biblical texts so far. Excuses range from “that’s not an accurate copy of the original” to “the Bible hasn’t really failed, we’ve just failed to understand it correctly,” to “I deny the facts and claim that the Bible was correct despite the evidence.” But you could offer those excuses for any canonized document: the Qur’an, Dianetics, Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures, the Book of Mormon, and on and on.

Biblical inerrancy is basically the old con-man’s shell game: distract the pigeon by shuffling things around so fast that he doesn’t notice there’s nothing under any of them. Jesus appealed to the Bible’s presumed-inerrant authority and then quickly slipped in some rather shady arguments not contained in the texts he appealed to. His followers, as he intended, jumped to the conclusion that his teachings had the full authority of divinely-inspired revelations. And to this very day they still play the same shell game, on each other, and on any likely looking non-Christian pigeon.

 
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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “XFiles: What Biblical inerrancy really means”

  1. Susannah Says:

    ” But what’s even more interesting is that he then proceeds to “correct” them by declaring that “at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”—which is not written anywhere in the Old Testament Scriptures!”

    That’s a good point. I had never stopped to think about this, although it should have been apparent at first glance.

    “… not God of the dead …” I can’t think of any place in the OT where he could have gotten this, either. In fact, doesn’t it imply the opposite, in Psalms 139:8, “If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” (Reading “hell” in the OT sense of “grave”.)

    Jesus works as a great example of all the techniques used by modern-day preachers and apologists; lying, goalpost-shifting, invective, weasel words, trust-me statements, etc. Now I can add to that list, adding to Scripture, and whole-cloth invention.

  2. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    One that that I’ve always been curious about, is how can we be even reasonably sure that when ‘scripture’ is referred to in new testament letters and gospels, it’s limited to old testament books?

  3. John Morales Says:

    Susannah,

    Jesus works as a great example of all the techniques used by modern-day preachers and apologists [...]

    You’ve just characterised the methodology of a demagogue. :)

  4. Jer Says:

    I’ve read that the actual translation of that verse refers not to “Scriptures” in the general sense that Christians use it but rather to the specific collection of books known as the “Writings” – Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, etc. Which puts an entirely different spin on the story since it would be an accusation that the Saudacees in question were missing the boat because they didn’t accept the Writings of Isaiah, Psalms, Job, etc. as authoritative. (I can’t find a citation now, though the “Young’s Literal Translation” found on biblegateway does in fact translate the word as “Writings” and not as “Scriptures”). I wouldn’t be surprised if the book that Mark is referring to in the above story isn’t something that didn’t make it into the final canon (like the book of Enoch or one of the other non-canonical books).

    That puts that last line into a different light as well, since it would be a shift in argument from arguing that they’re wrong because of a work they don’t accept as genuine to arguing that they’re wrong because of what the books that they DO accept as genuine say. Though the argument is a pretty weak one.

    However. Even if this claim did mean to cover all of the Tanakh and not just the Writings, we still run into the problem that the entirety of the NT couldn’t possibly be covered by this claim because none of it had been written yet. So do G&T ever deal with the fact that this story might itself be in error because Mark (who Matthew copied this story from) might have gotten it wrong? Or might have deliberately made the story up for one reason or another? Something tells me that the answer to this question is a resounding no.

  5. Jer Says:

    And to follow up to myself, I was reminded of at least two of the OT books that specifically talk about the resurrection of the dead. Isaiah 26:19 talks about the dead rising from the earth and Daniel 12:1-2 talks about the end times when the dead will rise up to either everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt (as the NIV on biblegateway.com suggests). Both of these would be from writings outside of the Torah. A lot of Christian eschatology seems to have been derived from Isaiah and Daniel when you get right down to it. (Though I misspoke before I realize – Isaiah is in the Prophets, not the Writings.)

  6. Ben Says:

    It is possible that knowing “the scriptures and the power of god” was code for “my spiritual interpretation of divine truth” which didn’t have to have anything to do with what we find in the texts at face value.

    Although I do find the suggestion above in the comments that perhaps Jesus was referring to a non-canonical book somewhat promising. The topic of angel procreation does seem to fit the stereotype of what we might expect to find (i.e. randomly developed theological tangents).

    Interesting.

    Ben

  7. Tacroy Says:

    “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

    When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

    Man, that looks familiar. Don’t modern “how to convert people by preaching the Gospel” guidebooks have segments like the bolded part all over the place? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something similar in a Chick tract.

    Which is to say – how do we know that they actually were astonished, and not just too busy snickering to themselves to say anything?

  8. Joe Says:

    You have a misunderstanding of what death really is. Death is the separation of the body from the mind and spirit. Being made in God’s image consists of three parts. The Mind (God the Father), the body (Jesus) and the spirit (Holy Spirit). These three parts make One whole person. The resurrection is the rejoining of the body to the mind and spirit. Therefore, when Jesus says that God is the God of the living, he is telling the truth, because the mind and spirit are not dead, only the body is. The physical world is subject to the curse of the original sin of Adam. Therefore, it is only the body that must die. The mind and spirit are of another realm and are not subject to the curse, which is why they can continue to live after the body has died. At the resurrection, the body will also be raised uncorrupted and eternal.

    And don’t forget, Jesus IS God, so he can speak on his own authority, regarding the writings or the scriptures. The sermon on the mount was used to further the peoples understanding of the law and these teachings are not found in the OT either.

    There is no shell game going on here.

  9. Deacon Duncan Says:

    That’s the interpretation I used to have when I was a Christian. It’s actually a fairly interesting topic itself, so let me address that in a separate post.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  10. cl Says:

    There’s nothing in [Exodus 3:6] that says anything about death or resurrection or the future. There’s nothing in [Exodus 3:6] that requires Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be alive in order for God to be their God… Jesus’ argument is simply not well-founded, even taking the Bible at face value. (DD, brackets mine)

    I disagree, and my response is here.

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Wow, really? You think Exodus 3:6 mentions death, resurrection, and/or the future when it says, “I am the God if Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob?” You think those words require that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have to be alive in order for a God who is not the God of the dead to be their God? In other words, you think Jesus tried to prove the resurrection of the dead by appealing to a verse that requires them to be alive and not dead? Because if that’s not what you’re saying, you’re not really disagreeing with what I’m saying.

    When someone says “X is the X of Y,” it does not require that “Y” be something that is currently in effect. We can call Abraham Lincoln “the Civil War president” without implying that the Civil War is currently being fought. We can call Marduk “the god of the Chaldeans” without implying that the Chaldeans still exist. And the Abrahamic God can be the God of the Exodus, the God of the Passover, and the God of the Cross, without any of those things still being around. The language used in Exodus 3:6 simply does not require that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob be non-dead, because if it did, Jesus would have shot down his whole argument with the only “supporting” Scripture he quoted.

  12. cl Says:

    I’ve replied to your questions and statements here.